Watkins v. Copeland et al
ORDER that the 12 Amended Complaint has passed initial review against Defendants Copeland, Howell, Teague, and John Doe for the use of excessive force. FURTHER ORDERED that the Plaintiff's remaining claims against De fendants FNU Link, FNU Moss, FNU Scruggs, FNU Walker, FNU Brown, FNU Poteat, FNU Miller, FNU Dula, and Jane Doe are DISMISSED. The Clerk of Court is directed to commence the procedure for waiver of service as set forth in Local Civil Rule 4.3 for De fendants Copeland, Howell, Teague, and John Doe. The Clerk is further directed to mail the Plaintiff an Opt-In/ Opt-Out form pursuant to the Standing Order in Misc. Case No. 3:19-mc-00060-FDW. Signed by Chief Judge Martin Reidinger on 4/1/2021. (Pro se litigant served by US Mail.)(khm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
CIVIL CASE NO. 5:19-cv-00162-MR
VAN BRETT PIERRE WATKINS,
FNU COPELAND, et al.,
THIS MATTER is before the Court on initial review of the Amended
Complaint [Doc. 12]. Plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis. [Doc. 9].
The pro se incarcerated Plaintiff filed this civil rights action pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 1983, complaining about incidents that allegedly occurred at the
Alexander Correctional Institution.1 The Complaint was dismissed on initial
review for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and the
Plaintiff was given the opportunity to amend. [Doc. 11]. The Amended
Complaint is now before the Court for initial review.
The Plaintiff is presently incarcerated at the Maury Correctional Institution.
The Plaintiff names as Defendants the following Alexander C.I.
personnel: FNU Copeland, FNU Link, FNU Moss, FNU Scruggs, and FNU
Walker, correctional sergeants; FNU Brown, FNU Poteat, and FNU Miller,
correctional lieutenants; FNU Dula, FNU Howell, FNU Teague, and John
Doe, correctional officers; and Jane Doe, a nurse.
The Plaintiff alleges that on January 1, 2019,2 he was sitting in the
mess hall during the evening meal that was being supervised by Defendants
Brown, Link, Miller, Poteat, and Scruggs. The Plaintiff alleges that during
the meal he was attacked from behind by another inmate. Defendant Link
tackled the inmate who was attacking the Plaintiff, then all three of them were
pepper sprayed.3 [Doc. 12-1 at 4].
The Plaintiff alleges that he was thrown to the hard cement floor by
unknown staff, that his ankle was stomped, and that he was handcuffed and
shackled. The Plaintiff alleges that he was then picked up from the floor and
that Defendant Howell beat him with a baton. The Plaintiff alleges that
Defendants Copeland and Teague walked the Plaintiff out of the mess hall
and intentionally ran him into steel tables and stools, which knocked off his
The Plaintiff also refers to the date of the incident as January 6, 2018, but this appears
to be an error. [See Doc. 12 at 5].
The Plaintiff claims that he is unable to attribute individual actions to the various
Defendants because he was temporarily blinded by the pepper spray. He claims,
however, that the entire incident was captured on surveillance video.
glasses and boot, hurt his right foot, and bruised his leg. The Plaintiff alleges
that he was thrown to the floor for a second time, and that certain unnamed
“staff” then attempted to carry him; however, he alleges, they failed and
dropped him on his face, causing bruises. [Id. at 2].
The Plaintiff alleges that he was taken to solitary confinement where
he was ordered to strip and was decontaminated by Defendants Moss, Dula,
and John Doe correctional officer. The Plaintiff alleges that Defendant John
Doe told him to beg for cold water and, when the Plaintiff refused, he pepper
sprayed the Plaintiff for a second time. The Plaintiff claims that this incident
was captured on a handheld camera. [Id. at 3].
Defendant Jane Doe, a nurse who came to evaluate the Plaintiff for
injuries. The Plaintiff alleges that she provided a false name and falsely
reported that the Plaintiff sustained no injuries. The Plaintiff alleges that he
had a swollen ankle for months after this incident and that he suffered
contusions and abrasions all over his body. [Id.].
The Plaintiff asks the Court to view the video footage of the incidents
and to award him compensatory and punitive damages. He also requests
the appointment of counsel. [Id. at 3, 6].
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Because Plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis, the Court must
review the Amended Complaint to determine whether it is subject to
dismissal on the grounds that it is “(i) frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state
a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against
a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B); see
28 U.S.C. § 1915A (requiring frivolity review for prisoners’ civil actions
seeking redress from governmental entities, officers, or employees).
In its frivolity review, a court must determine whether the Complaint
raises an indisputably meritless legal theory or is founded upon clearly
baseless factual contentions, such as fantastic or delusional scenarios.
Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327-28 (1989). Furthermore, a pro se
complaint must be construed liberally. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520
However, the liberal construction requirement will not permit a
district court to ignore a clear failure to allege facts in his complaint which set
forth a claim that is cognizable under federal law. Weller v. Dep’t of Soc.
Servs., 901 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1990).
To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that he was
“deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States,
and that the alleged deprivation was committed under color of state law.”
Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 49-50 (1999).
The Plaintiff first asserts that the Defendant correctional officers used
excessive force against him during an incident in the dining hall and
afterward in a decontamination shower.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits prison officials from unnecessarily
and wantonly inflicting pain on prisoners.4 Hill v. Crum, 727 F.3d 312, 317
(4th Cir. 2013). A prison official violates the Eighth Amendment only when
two requirements are met. First, the deprivation alleged must be objectively
“sufficiently serious,” Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991), resulting in
the denial of “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” Rhodes v.
Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347 (1981). The second requirement is that a
prison official must have a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Wilson, 501
U.S. at 297, 302-03; see Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 5, 8 (1992).
For excessive force claims, the objective component asks whether the
force applied was sufficiently serious to establish a cause of action. Brooks
The Plaintiff purports to seek relief pursuant to the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth
Amendments. Although the Plaintiff cites the Fifth Amendment, he has failed to set forth
factual allegations upon which a plausible Fifth Amendment claim could be based. [Doc.
12 at 3].
v. Johnson, 924 F.3d 104, 112 (4th Cir. 2019). The subjective component
“ultimately turns on whether force was applied in a good faith effort to
maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very
purpose of causing harm.” Id. at 112-13. However, “[v]erbal abuse alone
does not violate a constitutional right.” Moody v. Grove, 885 F.2d 865 (4th
Cir. 1989) (unpublished) (citing Collins v. Cundy, 603 F.2d 825, 827 (10th Cir.
1979)). Prison officials also have a duty “to protect prisoners from violence
at the hands of other prisoners.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833
(1994) (quoting Cortes-Quinoes v. Jimenez-Nettleship, 842 F.2d 556, 558
(1st Cir. 1988)).
The Plaintiff alleges that he was pepper sprayed and thrown to the floor
of the mess hall after another inmate attacked him. Even liberally construed,
these allegations fail to plausibly allege that the Defendant correctional
officers acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind, rather to support the
vital penological interest of swiftly halting a violent incident between two
inmates in the prison’s mess hall. The Plaintiff’s allegation that his ankle was
stomped during the melee, even if sufficiently serious, likewise fails to
adequately allege the requisite state of mind.
The Plaintiff’s allegations that staff dropped him during an attempt to
carry him out of the mess hall and that Defendants Brown, Miller, Poteat,
Scruggs, and Link supervised the meal negligently also do not rise to the
level of a constitutional violation. See generally Miltier v. Beorn, 896 F.2d
848, 851 (4th Cir. 1990), overruled on other grounds by Farmer, 511 U.S. at
825 (mere negligence does not violate the Eighth Amendment).
However, the Plaintiff’s allegations that Defendant Howell beat him
with a baton after he was handcuffed and shackled; that Defendants
Copeland and Teague intentionally ran him into steel tables and stools while
he was restrained; and that John Doe administered pepper spray without
justification in the shower are plausible excessive force claims.
Therefore, the Court will allow the Plaintiff’s excessive force claims to
proceed against Defendants Copeland, Howell, Teague, and John Doe. The
Plaintiff’s excessive force claims as to the remaining Defendants will be
Deliberate Indifference to a Serious Medical Need
The Plaintiff also appears to allege that the Jane Doe nurse who came
to evaluate him after the use of force incident was deliberately indifferent to
a serious medical need.
To state a claim for deliberate indifference to a serious medical need,
a plaintiff must show that he had serious medical needs and that the
defendant acted with deliberate indifference to those needs. Heyer v. United
States Bureau of Prisons, 849 F.3d 202, 210 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Iko v.
Shreve, 535 F.3d 225, 241 (4th Cir. 2008)). A “serious medical need” is “one
that has been diagnosed by a physician as mandating treatment or one that
is so obvious that even a lay person would easily recognize the necessity for
a doctor's attention.” Iko, 535 F.3d at 241 (internal quotation marks omitted).
To constitute deliberate indifference to a serious medical need, “the
treatment [a prisoner receives] must be so grossly incompetent, inadequate,
or excessive to shock the conscience or to be intolerable to fundamental
fairness.” Miltier, 896 F.2d at 851 (4th Cir. 1990).
Here, the Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Jane Doe lied about her
name and falsely stated that he sustained no injuries even though he had
abrasions and contusions and his ankle was swollen for months afterward.
Allegations of abrasions, contusions, and a swollen ankle fail to demonstrate
that the Plaintiff had a serious medical need mandating treatment. The
Plaintiff’s allegation that the nurse lied about her name and falsely reported
that he had no injuries, while perhaps improper, was not so grossly
inadequate to shock the conscience. Therefore, the deliberate indifference
claim against Defendant Jane Doe will be dismissed.
Request for Counsel
The Plaintiff asks the Court to appoint counsel to represent him in this
action. He argues that he is a construction worker and has “great difficulty
with law work.” [Doc. 12-1 at 3].
There is no absolute right to the appointment of counsel in civil actions
such as this one.
Therefore, a plaintiff must present “exceptional
circumstances” in order to require the Court to seek the assistance of a
private attorney for a plaintiff who is unable to afford counsel. Miller v.
Simmons, 814 F.2d 962, 966 (4th Cir. 1987). The Plaintiff has failed to
demonstrate the existence of exceptional circumstances that would warrant
the appointment of counsel. Nevertheless, the Court will offer the Plaintiff
the opportunity to request the appointment of North Carolina Prisoner Legal
Services to assist him with discovery pursuant to Standing Order 3:19-mc00060-FDW.
In sum, Plaintiff has stated an Eighth Amendment claim against
Defendants Copeland, Howell, Teague, and John Doe for the use of
excessive force. The remaining claims are dismissed.
This Court’s Local Rule 4.3 sets forth the procedure to waive service
of process for current or former employees of NCDPS in actions filed by
North Carolina State prisoners. In light of the Court’s determination that this
case passes initial review, the Court will order the Clerk of Court to
commence the procedure for waiver of service as set forth in Local Civil Rule
4.3 for Defendants Copeland, Howell, Teague, and John Doe, who are
alleged to be current or former employees of NCDPS.
IT IS, THEREFORE, ORDERED that the Amended Complaint [Doc.
12] has passed initial review against Defendants Copeland, Howell, Teague,
and John Doe for the use of excessive force.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Plaintiff’s remaining claims
against Defendants FNU Link, FNU Moss, FNU Scruggs, FNU Walker, FNU
Brown, FNU Poteat, FNU Miller, FNU Dula, and Jane Doe are DISMISSED.
The Clerk of Court is directed to commence the procedure for waiver
of service as set forth in Local Civil Rule 4.3 for Defendants Copeland,
Howell, Teague, and John Doe, who are alleged to be current or former
employees of NCDPS. The Clerk is further directed to mail the Plaintiff an
Opt-In/ Opt-Out form pursuant to the Standing Order in Misc. Case No. 3:19mc-00060-FDW.
Signed: April 1, 2021
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?